Why Engagement Must Be Built Into the Member Experience

Struggling to get members engaged? Perhaps the problem’s not in your methods but in the engagement opportunities themselves.

More online collaboration tools. Better messaging. Finer demographic data. Nicer incentives.

When associations struggle to get members engaged, they often search for practical solutions like these, special tricks for getting members’ attention. The list goes on and on.

Nothing’s wrong with trying these enhanced engagement tactics. But what if the problem is deeper or more structural?

You could ask that question about any line of business, association or elsewhere. When do improved methods offer deep potential, and when do they promise marginal gains at best?

A stronger focus on engagement, activity, involvement, and mission at the recruitment stage will position membership as a call to action.

For associations thinking about member engagement, consider these three perspectives that come from the world of fitness centers and cultural institutions (e.g., gyms and museums), which might push you to deepen your search for engagement answers.

A Call to Action

In “The Economic Case for Joining an Expensive Gym,” Quartz writer and economist Allison Schrager argued in August that, if you really want to commit (or, perhaps, guilt) yourself into going to the gym consistently, you should join the most expensive one you can find.

In line with research that suggests “putting more money on the line can help us follow through on our goals,” Schrager writes that, in her experience as well, “a bigger penalty gives me some added discipline.”

The parallel to associations isn’t perfect; association engagement isn’t a “pain for gain” activity. But often our goal in getting members to engage is to inspire a “get off the couch” ethos—or, more accurately, “get out from behind your desk.”

Perhaps, though, you just have too many desk potatoes in your membership. If your recruitment efforts focus on a litany of products and services packaged together for one low, low price, should you be surprised when most of your members want to get a lot of things but not get involved?

Simply charging more for membership might not solve your engagement problems, but it’s possible that a stronger focus on engagement, activity, involvement, and commitment to your mission at the recruitment stage will position membership itself as a call to action and perhaps weed out the prospects who have little propensity to answer it.

A Community to Join

Of course, once members do get involved, they’re more likely to stay with you. But, in relation to retention, the particular manner in which they’re engaged may matter less than the human connections they make in the process.

A September feature in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Understanding the ‘Cult’ of Group Fitness,” sums up research on the importance of the “group” element of group fitness. One study, for instance, found that CrossFit gym members reported elevated levels of “social capital,” such as networking and deeper friendships.

It’s not CrossFit, specifically, that’s responsible, though, as one veteran group-fitness trainer told the Herald: “‘I’ve been through all the different eras and genres,’ she says. But while fitness fads will come and go, [she] says the thing that ultimately keeps people attending is simple: ‘It’s the group activity.’”

The Entrepreneurs’ Organization knows this. Every member who joins is placed in a Forum, a peer group of seven to 10 fellow business owners in their area that meets monthly to share knowledge and experiences. Forums are EO’s highest-rated benefit, no doubt a result of both the insights shared and social capital built among those groups.

The Herald article also notes that “other research has suggested that a lack of social support in standard gyms is linked to their dropout rates.” As we’ve noted here at Associations Now before, building social networks via associations is especially crucial for young members, who must build new networks when they leave school and enter the professional world.

So, again, the question is one of the structural design of your member experience: What does your association do to connect members, early and often, in person? Is face-to-face interaction built in to membership, or is it merely an add-on?

A New Experience

Associations, meanwhile, compete for the time and attention of their members with everything else in their lives—work, family, sleep, leisure, and other forms of learning and professional development. It’s hard to stand out in the fray.

Being new or unique can help. Colleen Dilenschneider explains on her blog, Know Your Own Bone, that first-time attendees to a particular type of museum or other cultural institution rate their customer satisfaction and value for cost of admission higher than visitors who have visited an attraction of the same type before.

Dilenschneider and her colleagues at predictive intelligence firm IMPACTS call this “point of reference sensitivity,” but you could also simply understand it as novelty. Regardless who, where, or with whom, the novelty of a new experience gives a person’s feelings about it a positive boost. But, as Dilenschneider writes, “essentially, as a person gains familiarity with an experience, it becomes increasingly harder to impress them.”

That’s great news if you can get young members to engage in person. If your association is the first professional community they’ve joined, or if they’ve never been to a chapter event or annual conference before, just getting them in the door and introducing them to those experiences can earn you points.

But what about everyone else, all those prospects and members for whom you’re not the first membership experience? Dilenschneider’s advice to organizations is to be unique, to identify and emphasize that which makes you different from all the other organizations in your category.

And so, once more, when your association asks members to get engaged, are you asking them to muster up the energy to do more of the same (whatever it might be), or are you opening a door for them to try something new, something they can’t do anywhere else?

How do your association’s engagement opportunities stack up? Could the organization stand to benefit from a more deeply ingrained culture of involvement? What has worked (or not worked) for you in getting members more engaged? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!